On a blustery night last February, twenty-five intangible artworks popped up on the Carrboro-Chapel Hill border. The public exhibit Shimmer: The Art of Light presented light art in myriad forms. Britt Flood roamed with a handheld projector to demonstrate how far one must travel when "Chasing the Muse."
Meanwhile, Hye-Young Kim projected her boundary-pushing "Intimate Distances" on the wall of St. Paul AME. It showed two people closing their eyes and leaning in close while trying not to touch, emotional bolts reverberating through their faces when they inevitably did.
Soon, Raleigh will get a public light-art show of its own, but one that differs from Shimmer in two key respects. Instead of a single night, it unfolds over a whole month, and it adds a pressing environmental message to the visual appeal of light.
Designed by Andrea Polli, an artist and scientist, Particle Falls comes to 14 East Hargett Street from March 24 to April 23. Each day after sundown, a series of aqua-colored vertical lines suffused with animated fiery specks will light up the Empire Properties Building, across from the Raleigh Times Bar. As you peer up at the lights, the colors will fluctuate based on data collected from an air-quality sensor posted in front of the building, visually representing the particles entering your body with each breath.
Sponsored by a coalition of local organizations such as Clean Air Carolina, Particle Falls primarily aims to draw attention to the polluting effects of vehicle emissions, which North Carolina's Department of Environmental Quality lists as one of the area's leading air pollutants.
The project comes to Raleigh after runs in cities around the country, including San Jose, Philadelphia, and, most recently, Charlotte. Downtown Raleigh should give the sensor plenty of data to work with, as the Environmental Protection Agency cites Wake, Orange, and Durham counties as needing special attention to improve the quality of their air.
"Our end goal is really actions," says Heather Brutz, the Clean Transportation Specialist for the NC Clean Energy Technology Center, another of the exhibit's Raleigh sponsors. "We hope that people will do things like walk or bike, take the bus, or use alternative-fuel vehicles to help reduce the amount of transportation-related emissions."
While Brutz's organization often informs the public through workshops, campaigns, and brochures, Particle Falls takes a fresh approach, engaging through emotion and aesthetics instead of just data.
"I think that art appeals to people at a different level," Brutz says. "By trying to get the message out in different ways, you reach different people."
Of course, viewers can't be expected to guess that the spectacular display of lights correlates to the quality of the air they are breathing, so most nights, the organizers will station volunteers outside to explain the significance of the display and advise spectators on ways to alleviate their negative impact on air quality. In all, it should make for a stirring public art experience, juxtaposing the pristine beauty of the lights with the invisible toxins they represent. Do yourself a favor and walk or bike to see it, rather than driving.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Something in the Air ."